Growth, growth, and more growth. It’s the sacred idea of economic policy, a goal fueled by this unquestioned premise: Unlimited growth is both desirable (because it’s always beneficial) and possible (because nothing can contain human ambitions). With its quest for monetary gain, let’s call this narrative the Story of More.
It’s an alluring tale. But do the storytellers realize they’re spinning science fiction?
To answer this, let’s step back and examine the assertions behind The Story of More.
Assertion #1: Unlimited growth is desirable.
The basic premise of the story is that more is better. I’d argue that sometimes, this holds true. People have essential needs (food, shelter, and clothing, etc.) , and after acquiring them, households might spend money on education, travel, or other things that can arguably add to quality of life. And, for people who lack the essentials, more material goods to meet these needs can definitely improve things.
So far, so good.
But as I explain in this blog post, and this video society measures growth by the Gross Domestic Product, a metric which rises anytime money changes hands. This means some decidedly negative activities contribute to the GPD, including drugs, crime, and pollution. Moreover, the GDP does not account for the environmental or social impacts of economic activity. For example, the GDP ignores the value of services provided by forests, such as carbon sequestration. According to the logic of the GDP, a forest gains value only when it’s turned into timber and sold.
Thus, while more sometimes improves well-being, it often has external impacts that are detrimental, challenging the notion that more is always better.
Assertion #2: Unlimited growth is possible.
This belief that economic output can expand indefinitely is based on a worldview that sees the environment as separate from the economy. In this mindset, the environment is merely a dormant “factor of production” that waits without purpose at the sidelines until harvested. Factories are here in civilization, forests are out there in nature, and the two shall only meet when market forces signal that profits await. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. You can find this worldview in practically any high school economics curriculum.
But most econ textbooks have never taken a science class. If they had, they books would be communicating a very different narrative of the world: one based on the idea that the economy is embedded within--not external to--the environment.
First, a quick definition: The environment includes all living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) substances on earth and in the atmosphere. In this definition, humans are part of the environment, not separate from it. Moreover, the environment is everywhere, not just in the rainforest, the arctic, or other “wild” places/ The fact is, the environment is the containing system of the economy, meaning a healthy economy is wholly dependent upon healthy ecological systems. This is more than an assumption--it is a basic scientific fact. Let’s take a look at four basic principles that demonstrate this:
Principle 1: The environment is the source of all resources and energy.
All of the resources and energy needed to produce goods and services comes from the living or non-living materials in the environment, including soil, water, trees, and solar energy. Think about it: Something as basic as apple purchased at the store requires inputs such as sunlight, soil, fertilizers (whether manufactured or from compost), transportation, and energy. The people involved in getting the apply from tree to plate (farmers, distributors) also consume food and energy, which also comes from the environment.
Principle 2: Economic activity involves transforming resources and energy.
Economic production expends energy to process raw materials into goods and services. To get our apple to the store, we may burn coal for electricity for refrigeration, or use gasoline to transport the fruit. Providing this energy involves its own set of transformations, such as mining, refining, and combustion. All of these stages create wastes. This leads to the next idea.
Principle 3: All wastes go back into the environment.
The wastes produced through economic activity go back into the environment in one form or another: Emissions from burning fuels go into the atmosphere. Packaging goes into landfills or is perhaps recycled. The apple core might be composted. This means that wastes do not--and physically cannot--disappear. This is the heart of our next principle.
Principle 4: It’s impossible to through something “away.”
The First Law of Thermodynamics, a scientific law as basic as gravity but far less known, states that energy (including the potential energy in matter) cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. This means that wastes can change physical and/or chemical form as they cycle through the environment, but do not go away.
For example, a plastic package can break into small pieces but it does not decompose (a physical change). The decomposing apple undergoes a physical and chemical change. Coal is solid, but when it is burned it releases different solids and gases into the atmosphere, another example of a physical and chemical change. In reality, it is impossible to throw something "away" since wastes are continually changing form and cycling through the environment. Of course, some outputs can become inputs; this is the idea of recycling and composting. Thus, the quality and impact of outputs becomes an important consideration in a sustainability paradigm.
These principles are illustrated in the following diagram:
Here’s the bottom line: The environment provides critical life-sustaining services that are subject to irrefutable physical and biological constraints. We cannot
infinitely harvest materials faster than they grow back
create more wastes than ecosystems can absorb and process
continue to rely upon non-renewable resources.
Yet despite these fundamental limits, we’re breaking the rules at every turn with the continued worship of growth. In fact, an analysis of human impact on the environment via peer-reviewed methodologies such as the Ecological Footprint tell us that we are exceeding the earth’s capacity for renewal.
This isn’t rocket science; I’ve worked with 5th graders who get this.
A call for #DeGrowth
An increasing number of business leaders and economists recognize that the scarcity of natural capital may be a limiting factor for economic expansion. In other words, whereas growth was once constrained by the availability of energy or infrastructure, declining ecological conditions will be (and already are) a biophysical barrier. This is driving leaders to rethink the very premise of growth. In its place is a vision for degrowth and/or a “steady state” approach that that scales economic activity to the environment’s capacity for renewal.
Growing what matters
Let me end with an important caveat: The critique of growth offered here is based upon an expansion of material output, which, as we’ve seen, has biophysical constraints. But what if we’re talking about growth of happiness, health, or peace? That’s a different type of growth--one that focuses on getting better rather than just acquiring more. It’s the kind of growth we should be pursuing, requiring that we shift the narrative from the Story of More to the Story of Better.
As noted, more can sometimes be better, meaning that the stories can overlaps. This nuance only emphasizes the need to carefully consider our conceptions and assumptions about growth.
It’s time we place economic assumptions (which are products of culture) to the test of biophysical laws and recognize the former is constrained by the latter. Only then will we expose the Story of More for what it really is: a feel-good tale of science fiction set in a fantasy land where overturning the laws of physics is humans’ super power.
The US Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE) and The Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy are examples of organizations advancing a new economic paradigm through scholarship, research, education, and advocacy.
Twitter hashtags such as #DeGrowth, #EcologicalEconomics, and #GreenNewDeal track discussions on the topics presented here.
This blog (written as a guest post for the USSEE) provides more insights into the Stories of More and Better. The blog draws from my book, which offers a deeper look at the historical, scientific, and philosophical roots of economic narratives.
Got more questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me.